Businesses are using 'digital transformation' purely for marketing purposes, says Co-Op CDO Mike Bracken

Sooraj Shah
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 Mike Bracken is best known for his time as head of the Government Digital Service
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Mike Bracken is best known for his time as head of the Government Digital Service

Co-op Group digital head Mike Bracken gives Computing his view of what digital transformation really is

Digital transformation is a buzzphrase that has existed for several years, but everyone seems to have their own version of what it exactly means.

So who better to ask for a clear definition than digital supremo Mike Bracken?

Bracken is currently chief digital officer at retailer The Co-Operative Group, but is probably better known for heading up the Government Digital Service (GDS), where he successfully led a team that focused on bringing public services online.

In his near-two year term at the Co-Op he has had similar success, digitising products, developing new platforms and attracting new digital skills to a company that had previously been struggling.

Digital transformation involves asking some very basic questions of yourself like: should we even do this anymore? Why are we set up this way? How can we do something different? 

So what is digital transformation?

"It's a much over-used term but what it really means is resetting the operations and culture of the organisation around the digital needs of its users and customers, and doing so in a way that means that they are accelerated and they meet the high expectations that digital provides," he says.

He adds that it is no good digitalising a paper process and claiming that the organisation has "done digital transformation" because all it has actually done is put the paper process online.

"Digital transformation involves asking some very basic questions of yourself like: should we even do this anymore? Why are we set up this way? How can we do something different? What are the real user needs that our customers have?"

However, Bracken says the reason that true digital transformation is rare is because there are major barriers in many organisations' way.

First, he says it's hard to change the entire culture of the organisation. Companies often need a crisis to be able to do that - and at the Co-Op this is exactly the situation Bracken found himself in.

Getting to grips with operations and the internal platforms of the organisation, and often means continuously changing how you operate

Second, he says there is a misconception from some organisations' leadership teams that digital transformation is just ‘IT that's a bit better' or even little more than a new website.

"It's not that - it's getting to grips with operations and the internal platforms of the organisation, and often means continuously changing how you operate," he explains.

The third reason he gives is that people want to use the term ‘digital transformation' purely for marketing purposes. 

"Many people think it's a good marketing term, so if they have a shiny new app it means they're doing things digitally," he says. "You're trying to persuade the world that you're digital and it's effectively a form of advertising." 

[Digital is] hard and it takes a number of years to do it properly. In 90 per cent of cases I've seen, it's not actually happening

But, importantly, he adds that the best digital organisations don't do very much advertising at all because they don't need to - because the products themselves can be used effectively and therefore are all the evidence that is needed of ‘digital'. 

"If they're doing it well you'll be able to see it through the product, the communication, the way it works. But it's hard and it takes a number of years to do it properly. In 90 per cent of cases I've seen, it's not actually happening, but the public would like to think it is," he states.

Meanwhile, Bracken is leaving his post as CDO of The Co-Operative Group later this summer.

In a blog post, he explained that he will be concentrating on his work as a founder and partner of Public Digital, an organisation that works with government and conglomerates in Peru, Canada, Uruguay and several other countries.

Bracken will also be writing a book, and be focusing on several advisory and non-executive roles.

 

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